‘The Exorcist: Believer’ Doesn’t Know What It Believes In

‘The Exorcist: Believer’ Doesn’t Know What It Believes In October 9, 2023

Two girls in demonic-possession makeup grimace at a crucifix.
Image: (L-R) Lidya Jewett, Olivia O’Neill in ‘The Exorcist: Believer’/Universal Pictures

If you plan to go see The Exorcist: Believer (bless your heart!), currently in theaters, and you wish to remain unspoiled, leave now. Major spoilers follow.

What’s The Exorcist: Believer About?

I have plenty to say, but I’d like to start with a cut from Sean Burns of NorthShoreMovies.com. Can’t hardly do better to sum it up than this:

David Gordon Green… has always been a gentle filmmaker primarily interested in community …

True to form, “The Exorcist: Believer” is about a small town in Georgia where two little girls go missing. After they turn up three days later in a barn thirty miles away sporting inexplicable injuries and stereotypical signs of possession, it falls on neighbors of all races and religious beliefs to put aside their petty differences and drive away these demons together, as apparently only “Kumbaya” can cast out Pazuzu. It’s an exorcism as a group hug. The United Colors of Benneton angle is so overplayed, on the way out of the theater a pal said he wished they’d gone all the way and brought in a Hare Krishna to help.

Or, from CambridgeDay.com, by Tom Meek and Sarah G. Vincent:

The power of Christ compels you to not see this direct sequel to “The Exorcist” (1973).

But, Don’t I Like Catholic Horror?

Yeah, when I can get it. I would take any of The Omen movies, The Conjuring franchise — including both The Nun movies — and The Pope’s Exorcist any day, and twice on Sunday, over this shambling mess, co-produced by Blumhouse, known for its gory horror fare.

While it’s supposed to be a direct sequel, The Exorcist: Believer is an absolute affront to the masterpiece that is The Exorcist, written as a novel and screenplay by the late Catholic writer William Peter Blatty, and brilliantly directed by William Friedkin.

The new film’s basic premise — that the notion of exorcising demonic forces crosses cultures and religions — is fine. It could even have been interesting … if the filmmakers bothered to get below the surface of any of it.

Skipping Stones on the Surface of Faith(s)

I’ve often said that when the devil and his minions show up, movies go get a Catholic priest, and this film demonstrates why.

Blatty understood the ritual deeply, how priests had to prepare, and the toll it took on them. But even if writers don’t really get it, the Church has a deep and developed theology of possession — along with vestments, sacramentals and Latin — so it looks great and resonant on camera.

Green and fellow writers Scott Teems and Danny McBride throw in a bunch of religious ideas, without seeming to understand, or care, what makes them distinctive.

An example: Catherine (Olivia O’Neill), one of the possessed girls, goes to a Protestant church with her family.

Not sure what denomination this is, and it’s never actually said.

At this point, I have to admit that there’s a chance it was said, and I missed it — because there were big chunks of this movie where I couldn’t understand a dang word the characters were saying. Anyway …

The pastor (Raphael Sbarge) hands out wafers and little cups (again, don’t know if it’s wine or grape juice) saying, “The Body and the Blood of Jesus Christ.” So, I guess the congregation might be Lutheran, or maybe Episcopalian … would it have been so hard to just say?

Catholicism is a very specific thing, and its beliefs are usually laid out in movies of this type, but that courtesy isn’t given to the non-Catholic Christians here.

And the Doctor That Doesn’t Doctor

There’s also an oncologist (Okwui Okpokwasili) who has turned to folk beliefs rooted in African custom and spirituality. But she also prays The Lord’s Prayer later on, so is she a Vodou practitioner? I don’t know, but again, if you’re going to use it, name it.

Also, when one of the girls’ heart stops, the oncologist just stands there, leaving the mother to do CPR. Yeah, I’m literally pointing at the screen, going, “Uh, there’s a doctor, right there.”

Are There Catholics?

As far as Catholicism goes, there’s a Catholic nurse (Anne Dowd) who turns out to have been a novice religious sister — not a novitiate, as she says. In Catholicism, the novitiate is the state of being a novice — like, a novice would be in the novitiate program — not the name for the novice herself (a distinction I found by simply Googling).

She apparently had sex right before taking her vows and got pregnant and “chose not to keep it.” Of course, the demon throws this back in her face a couple of times, especially since, with all her churchgoing and friendship with her priest, Father Maddox (E.J. Bonillla), she’s never actually confessed this.

As seen in The Pope’s Exorcist, priests go to confession before an exorcism. Thereby, their sins are wiped away, and the demon can’t use the transgressions against them.

When the diocese enjoins Father Maddox from performing the exorcism, he deputizes the nurse. That’s a big no-no, and, to compound it, he also doesn’t offer her confession.

The priest winds up charging in halfway through the exorcism to participate, and gets his head twisted around for his pains. I guess the writers felt they had to take out a priest in some way.

Then There’s the Callback to The Exorcist

Ellen Burstyn (looking great for age 90) reprises her 1973 role as possessed Regan MacNeil’s (Linda Blair) mom. Here, she’s turned herself into a cross-cultural exorcism expert. She wrote a successful book about the events of The Exorcist, angering Regan. So, mother and daughter are estranged.

When the widower father (Leslie Odom Jr.) of one (Lidya Jewett) of the possessed girls goes to visit Chris MacNeil, she complains that she didn’t get to see her daughter’s exorcism. Her opinion is that this was because she wasn’t part of the priests’ “patriarchy.”

She unhelpfully omits that both of the men who did witness the exorcism wound up dead. That included one priest (Jason Miller) who allowed himself to be possessed, and then fatally threw himself down a flight of stairs to save Regan.

Apparently any sense of gratitude for the priests who sacrificed themselves to save her child didn’t help Chris get over her snit about not being allowed in the room, because she was a girl.

I Can’t Believe They Actually Did This

Oh, the priest who dies during the exorcism in The Exorcist: Believer is only the first of two casualties.

There may have been a dead horse early on, but again, I couldn’t make out the dialogue.

The other is one of the girls, who dies after the demon forces the parents to choose one girl or the other. We then get to see this innocent child apparently sucked down into Hell.

That was just … awful.

Also don’t know how nobody ended up in jail after a priest and a child die in an unsanctioned exorcism held in a private home, where the girls are strapped to chairs bolted to the floor, in the middle of a chalked circle symbol.

If I was a cop or a district attorney, I’d be curious about that.

I Expected One Cameo But Not the Other

I knew Linda Blair would pop up at some point, but I sure didn’t know Father Dwight Longenecker would be there. The Catholic author and blogger appears briefly, playing a priest in a scene where Father Maddox is trying to get permission for the exorcism.

I recognized him, and he is credited at the end — but just as Dwight Longenecker.

Nope, have no clue how this happened.

Should You See The Exorcist: Believer?

You do whatever you like, but I think firing up the original The Exorcist — one of the greatest tools for Catholic evangelization on film — would be a much better use of your time.

I hear this is supposed to the beginning of a new trilogy. I hope and pray this is a one-and-done instead.

P.S. To filmmakers: could somebody come up with a new way to do SFX makeup for demon-possessed people? You’ve been vamping on some version of Regan for 50 years now.

Image: (L-R) Lidya Jewett, Olivia O’Neill in ‘The Exorcist: Believer’/Universal Pictures

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About Kate O'Hare
Based in Los Angeles, Kate O'Hare is a veteran entertainment journalist, Social Media Content Manager for Family Theater Productions and a rookie screenwriter. You can read more about the author here.
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